I have a rug now hanging on the wall in my dining room. It’s full of birds and a little magic as well. You see, I bought it in Mexico on The Day of the Dead.
San Miguel de Allende seems made for magic—the narrow cobblestone streets where only the Hispanic women would dare to wear high heels, the door knockers shaped as delicate hands that seem to reach out and grab you, the sunsets over the cathedral towers and distant hills (even better seen from a rooftop while drinking margaritas)—-all of this seems otherworldly. But I was there during the holiday that truly goes beyond this world, where there is a belief that the souls of those passed over come back to revisit those still on earth—El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. The images are spooky, from the skulls made from sugar (some topped with sombreros which sadly didn’t make it home intact in my suitcase) to the dressed up skeleton figures in storefronts and the ghoulish painted faces of the people on the street, but the day is strangely not about the horror of death as much as an acceptance of it as part of life. Alters are set out by the front entrances of home with photos of ancestors, flowers and objects special to those now gone.
Our group made such an altar. A table was set up with levels and covered in cloth. Marigolds were put in vases or laid on the floor under the alter, for the goal is not to see how long they can survive but to enjoy their ephemeral beauty. We had brought photos from home of family and friends, parents and grandparents, and in some cases husbands. I had one of my mother and father on their wedding day, standing next to each other and looking so young, with their mothers, my grandmothers, beside them. I put it in a purple frame that Helen made in pre-school for a Mother’s Day gift. And when we stood at dusk and lit the candles, it did seem that the spirits were there. It seems to be a thing that happens in Mexico. There was something different in the air. A man and his son, strangers to us, stopped and stood in front of our altar, paying their respects. I thought about these people in the photos, also strangers to me, but loved by the new friends standing beside me. And the magic didn’t come just from the objects before us. It came from being in a place that believed in the magic. A place where families spend the whole night by their ancestors’ graves. It is a magic that comes from somewhere deep within.
And I miss that. I miss the magic of Mexico. A few days ago, a damp and chilly November morning, I took the dogs on the wooded trail behind our house. Being the poor animal trainer that I am, we started off as though we were in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race with me being the sled. But once the sniffing and territory marking began (them, not me), I had time to look around. The path was carpeted with the fallen yellow leaves from trees that lined the dry creek bed. With the cloud cover, a soft light was catching the edges of other falling leaves. I realized that I never walk in that woods without feeling lucky to have such a place. The dogs found things of interest ahead and as I walked along I felt something different in the air. I was alone but not alone. I saw my mother walking to a nearby garage sale on just such a fall day, eager to buy small presents for all of us. I saw my dad crossing the street with me when I was six, dressed in plaid flannel and corduroy pants, to play on the swings in the park. I saw my Grandma Rieder going to get eggs from the hen house to make rice pudding, a special treat I requested on my visits. And there was my Grandmother Carter, coming from the kitchen to her bedroom, where she would let her granddaughter try on all her costume jewelry. They were all there, walking the path with me.
I traveled to Mexico for a week long art workshop and I came home with much more than I went with. As I look at the rug now, I can still see the faded photo pinned to the stall of the man who sold it to me. A black and white picture of an older man working at a loom. “Yes, it is my father,” he told me. “He taught me how to make these rugs.” I could say build the altar and they will come, as the Mexicans believe on their glorious Day of the Dead. But it doesn’t take an altar. The magic can happen in the decorated doorways of San Miguel, or in a small woods in Kansas. It’s there when you need it, waiting to be invited in.
Special thanks to Rebecca Brooks, the organizer and host of our art retreat, who holds much magic herself. I truly believe that the magic of the trip generated from her and spread out until we were all giving of ourselves in a magical way. I would follow her anywhere!
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for a look at this years san miguel art retreats and folk art tours: